Often, couples who find themselves in severe disagreement lack good, healthy skills to hash out the issue. Rather than completely listening to each other, they begin to defend themselves and often spiral into a destructive pattern of communication. Here are five brief tips to help break that pattern.
- Pay attention to tone and posture. Often, a couple who finds themselves in my office is in conflict and is unaware why they cannot communicate about even simple matters. As a Counselor, one of the most helpful exercises involves having them “argue” in front of me. Individuals are often not aware of the tone of their voice and the posture of their approach. In other words, often, how something is said can often help or hurt the statement being made. If tone or posture is not considered, the other individual could become defensive, hopeless, reluctant, or even begin to shut down. As you hash out an issue, pay attention to your tone and posture while being aware of the impact it is having on your loved one.
- Speak to be understood. What is your goal in speaking? Are you speaking to obtain agreement? Or, are you speaking to help the other understand your thought? The approach to this question will mean a world of difference when communicating with your spouse. Speaking to be understood means you must cut out hot-button words like “should,” “must,” and “if you would just.” It means you will take your time and give the opportunity for your spouse to process what is being said and ask any needed questions. It also means you will limit the time you spend speaking before giving your spouse a chance to talk.
- Listen to understand. Ask questions, don’t make assumptions. Often, when listening, we are formulating a response to that which is being said. The problem with this is the amount of assumption that must then take place. Listening for understanding means your response will be formed only after you understand what is being said. Therefore, you must repeat what you hear being said to your spouse and give him or her the opportunity to correct any misunderstandings. Little spats turn into large wars often because of a miscommunication of what is being said and the listener believing false assumptions. It is helpful to begin a response with something like, “What I think you are telling me is…” or “I hear you saying…”
- Share your feelings. When discussing an argument, don’t just share the event or issue, briefly share how you felt about it. Instead of saying “You never take out the trash.” Try sharing a feeling statement like “It frustrates me when you don’t take the trash out because it makes me feel my request was unimportant to you.” When you are the listener and clarifying what you are hearing, include a similar statement. For example, you may clarify by saying, “I hear you saying you would like me to take the trash out more often and it would help you feel more like we are a team.” Our loved ones, especially women, need to know we do not just hear them, but that we understand the feelings attached with the thought.
- Keep it brief. It is easy to let arguments spiral out of control. When one person dominates the discussion, get an egg timer. Go back and fourth every 60 seconds using good listening skills. You can also create a “talking stick” by using something that you must be holding in order to be the speaker. The one not holding the stick will be the active listener.